Running with Kids: 5 Ways to Make Family Racing Memorable (And Fun!)

A tradition-in-the-making: running a festival 5K with my family.
A tradition-in-the-making: running a festival 5K with my family.

After several years running the summer 15K in my northern Michigan hometown’s annual National Cherry Festival, I switched over to the 5K. It’s typically sweltering on race day—it takes place the final day of the weeklong festival in early July—so I welcomed the shorter distance event. It also marked the first time my family of five ran a race all together. This was a year ago, and this past week we again got up early, pinned on race bibs, and toed the race start line together. I’d like to think we’ve created a new family tradition, complete with cheesy-fun matching race shirts and silly pre- and post-race photos.

Based on the many adults with kids we saw participating in our local 5K, and the responses received earlier this week on the AMR Facebook page about this topic, making races a family affair appears to be pretty popular. With so many races, particularly 5Ks, taking place nearly every weekend throughout summer and fall in communities across the country, there’s plenty of opportunities for families to get out there and run together. As mother runner Mary Frances shared with the tribe, “Running is a wonderful sport for families! All five of our kids run and all love racing … especially when we bring home bling!”

Whether you’ve run several races as a family, or it’s something you’re considering trying, BAMRs offered lots of sage advice for ensuring the experience is a fun one for everyone. Here’s a sampling of what’s worked (and not gone over so well) when it comes to racing with kids:

Start Small. Short races—one mile or less—can introduce your child to the “race” experience without being too overwhelming. Melissa’s twin boys, 3, participate in these kinds of events. “They get their own bibs and practice for weeks by looping the kitchen/living room,” she says. Mother runner Kristin says her oldest, age 5, is doing 1-mile fun runs for now. “Training” consists of playing outside and running around the playground, she says. “We follow his lead with the fun runs—run when he wants to, and walk when he wants to. I do a lot of reminding him that we are all winners and we aren’t trying to beat everyone else. As long as we do our best, we all win.” (Though she acknowledges he’s still learning this last part.) Melissa T., whose 5-year-old just ran her first one-mile race, now wants to move onto a 5K. “I think it’s best to start with a short distance, make it positive, and then move onto bigger distances,” she says.

Pre-race runs together help a lot. Beth, who ran her first 5K two years ago with her then-9-year-old daughter, says they followed a couch-to-5K program together. “Since then my whole family has become runners and my daughter, who is now 11, is signed up for her first sprint triathlon.” The family runs together to get ready for races: “We do most of our training runs at three miles so they are used to the distance and we stress that they listen to their bodies and not start too fast.” Several mother runners shared they follow a training plan such as ones used for a Girls on the Run 5K.

Manage expectations (theirs and yours). Long before the start gun goes off, talk through what’ll happen race day. In other words, discuss whether everyone will be running, walking, or doing a combination of both. Will everyone stay together the entire way, or is it OK for, say, older kids to go ahead? This year we all started together but eventually our 13-year-old and 11-year-old took off together, which we knew would likely happen. This meant Joe and I stayed with Alex, 7, and while we mostly ran, we also knew we’d take a few walk breaks with him along the way. We also had talked ahead of time about where we’d all meet in the finish area. Several mother runners also shared stories about emphasizing the importance of pacing to their kids. “I give them a little advice about starting off slow,” says Kimberly.

Inject some fun into it. Donning costumes can add even more excitement to the race, several mother runners shared. “My entire family—two adults and the four kids, ages 10, 6, 5, and 20 months—participated in a Superhero 5K,” says Melanie, “and things that made it successful were costumes and that is was for a family-friendly cause.” (The race helped benefit child abuse prevention). Pam offers this suggestion for race-wear: “We let them wear funky socks and tutus to make the race extra fun.” Laura suggests having your kids invite a buddy or two: “Adding some friends to the mix makes the race more fun for them. We also play “I Spy” and guessing games, and if they whine too much I threaten to sing. Family races are about having fun—throw out ideas about running at your normal pace.”

Bring extra water & goodies. Even with aid stations along the race route, mother runners know having a little extra something can come in handy. “I carry water and extra energy chews for her, which seemed to help with encouragement when needed,” says Krista, who ran a 5K earlier this month with her 6-year-old daughter. Kelly says she “felt funny carrying water in a 5K with my kids,” but wanted to be prepared. “Sure enough, they always want water when we are no where near the water station. It can also be used as a distractor if they start complaining.”

Have you run a race with your kids? As a family? What helped make your experience a memorable one?



14 responses to “Running with Kids: 5 Ways to Make Family Racing Memorable (And Fun!)

  1. My middle daughter (6 years old at the time) is my adventurous one and the only one of my 3 girls I could talk into doing a color run 5k. We went out on a beautiful summer morning and started out looking like angels in our required white race attire. I couldn’t get her off the ground at the last color station. She was making blue powder angels in the dust they were throwing on us! We ended up a hot, rainbow mess and it was a great memory. She was so excited when she got home, her sisters were jealous and we used that jealousy/ curiosity as a springboard into an ugly sweater Christmas 5k with the WHOLE family a few months later.

  2. I’ve run a few 5ks with with my 9 and 11-year-old. We do once a week trail runs for about 6 weeks before the race to train. They are always excited during the first mile, then they want to be done. The first race I ran with my daughter, I had to nag and push her to get to the finish line – we were last in a small race and she hated it. I learned that to keep everybody positive, we had to make a game of running when they got tired like racing to the next mailbox or I’ll promise a hot chocolate to everyone that can run all the way up a hill. We just did a Color Me Rad 5k together – that’s a great race for kids. In the fall, we’ll be volunteering at a Zombie Race here in Portland.

  3. Racing has been a family affair at my house for several years. Sometimes the kids can bike the 5K’s, and sometimes they run the shorter races. Most recently thought, my 9 year old has taken to running the 5K’s (usually about 4 minutes faster that his mom) and my dear husband is the official photographer since I never get to see him finish!

  4. We did a Fun Run last year and then took them out for lunch, they were quite pleased with themselves. Last month I signed up my older ones for a kids marathon and bought them new running outfits to get them excited. They had fun, raced hard and loved the bling. Next year we are gonna run the 5k together. I tell them how much fun I have at my races and all the great people I’ve met. I want them to be involved with such a great community and healthy atmosphere.

  5. Thinking that the “Mashed Potato Mile” here in Detroit might be a good start for us (meaning me, who’ll be rehabbing from Achilles repair surgery, and the 3 and 5 year olds). Its a fun race, they get the same tee-shirt as the other races, and we always have a flipping HERD of family at the 5 and 10K races that day as well. Maybe we’ll even get Daddy out there too.

    There’s also the Chocolate Chase Kids Mile at the PoHo Hot Cocoa 5K/8K that I’ve done every year. Yep, I am at the “thinking” stage. The 3 year old so dearly wants to run with Mommy all of a sudden…

  6. We just ran our official first 5K together (complete with timing chips). My kids have been running other races, the cheap free kids runs, but we did this one as a family. We paired up with our kids – I ran with my 8 yr old son, and my husband ran with my 10 yr old daughter. It turned into an old fashioned family showdown! It was a lot of fun though, and I think it was all friendly competition 🙂 At least it gave my daughter the motivation to beat my son at the *next* 5K!

  7. I guess I’m another grandma runner (usually walker). This spring my daughter and son-in-law signed up for a 5K and invited me to go along. Their 6 year old decided he wanted to give it a try. He runs a lot when he plays and has run to my house from theirs a few times, about a quarter mile. The morning of the run was cold and rainy, but we layered up and headed out. The six year old complained and we gave him the option of stay with grandpa in the truck, but he said he would tough it out. Of course when we started to run he warmed up and by the end of the run he was having a blast. It was a color run and I have never had so much fun. We are thinking about doing a glow run and another color run. I am one very lucky grandma!

  8. My son – 9 at the time – ran a 5k with me last summer. We did the Couch to 5k training program (I was coming back from an injury) to get ready for it. It was loads of fun. But I’m still mad at him because he started to sprint when he saw my husband on the side of the road (we were at about mile 1) and the best race picture we have is with him about 20 yards ahead of me! (I’m a bit competitive…)

  9. I haven’t raced “with” my daughter yet, but she’s participated in a few kids fun runs at races I’ve done. For her 1st ever run, I had a friend of mine make us matching headbands…because that’s my “must have” piece of running equipment, and she knows when I put one on, I’m most likely going for a run.

  10. My daughter begged to run a 5K with me when she was 6. At first I said no, but after months of begging I relented. I brought my cellphone and had my husband ready to pick us up if need be, but much to my surprise she ran that race like a champ finishing in under 10 minute miles. At 8 she has now officially beat me in a 5K and keeps getting faster without any real training. Don’t know how she does it! All I know is that she seems to truly love running, not just finishing the race.

  11. Kids’ races can be good prep too. Check out the Healthy Kids Running Series at It’s a 5 week race series for preK to 8th grade. Local coordinators (BAMRs!) run it, so it can also give you a little idea of how races are put together. A friend and I are trying it in our area for the first time this fall. The program’s message (Get up and Go!) and people are great. They’re always looking for new communities!

  12. My son and I started doing 5ks when he was 8. It was his idea to race 8 5ks, because he turned 8. I was doing 4 13.1s, one for each decade at 40. Some of the races were fun and some were brutal. I had to remind him I didn’t care if we walked the whole thing, but No Whining allowed. That hardly worked. When he was 9 we did a 5k, where he complained about the altitude. I said “no more until you’re older.” Then something clicked, he wanted to do a 10k because he was turning 10, I told him no way, not until he could do a 5k at altitude (we live here!), with no whining. Sure enough we did the cherry creek sneak and he rocked it. We did the Bolder Boulder and we walked and ran and stopped for otter pops and it was one of the most fun races I behave ever done. At each kilometer marker I would tell him about that birthday and the theme of his parties when he was that age. It was so fun. Nw he’s got his sights on a 13.1 when he’s 13. We will see how the next few years go.

  13. Most of the races my kids run they race with my youngest, 11, being the fastest. He ran his first 10K in 46 minutes on July 4. Last December, I signed us up as a family for a local 5K. It was a spur of the moment thing and everyone enjoyed it and did not race. My 11 & 14 year old decided to jog it, enjoy the sights, pet the dogs etc. I think that race may become a new family tradition. It was December, cooler, tons of food and activities afterwards – FUN. I guess we need photos now!

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